The documentary film opens with the filmmaker, Susan Smiley, in search of her mother, Millie, who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia and who, once again, has disappeared into the woefully inadequate public health care system of middle America. Through old photographs and home movies, interviews with family members and health care professionals, and voice-over and direct narration by Smiley herself, the film chronicles the descent of a young, beautiful woman in her twenties into severe and chronic mental illness.

When Millie’s marriage to their father fails, Susan and her younger sister, Tina, are essentially abandoned to endure severe physical and emotional abuse by their mother. As the years unfold, Millie eventually loses her home and embarks on a journey of evictions, arrests, hospitalizations, and homelessness. At what seems to be Millie’s lowest point, warehoused in a nursing home where she is angrily refusing to take any medication, her daughters intervene, petition for guardianship, and navigate the system on behalf of their mother.


Out of the Shadow is an outstanding example of the appeal and power of narrative documentary, which serves both an aesthetic and social purpose by provoking emotional intimacy through story and revealing timely issues in need of attention. About this work Susan Smiley, an accomplished and experienced documentary filmmaker, writes: "I felt compelled to use my skills. . .to illuminate the realities of, and clarify misconceptions about, mental illness. So I decided to make a film about my mother, Millie." The story Smiley tells is both an intensely personal and tragically common one for the family members of the 5.5 million people affected by mental illness.

The early lives of the filmmaker and her sister were dominated by the abuse and neglect of their mother; their early view of the world was distorted by Millie’s delusions and disinhibition: "As far as we knew, every mom was a big dreamer and a drugstore shoplifter." Family photographs and home movies not only capture a haunted and lovely young woman, one who resembles Grace Kelly, but also two stoic and guarded little girls. Their ultimate departure from home precipitated Millie’s complete financial ruin, social isolation, and mental unraveling. She twice attempted suicide.

Since 1980, Smiley and her sister have searched for the best way to care for their mother in a system that is inefficient, mismanaged, and inadequate. Throughout this terrible ordeal, Millie’s dark humor and quick wit shine through as does her daughters’ ultimate recognition of and reconciliation with the cruelty of their mother’s disease, not of the woman herself.


The film has an accompanying discussion guide for mental health professionals and professionals-in-training. Workbooks are designed for teachers and facilitators to introduce the film and provide detailed and structured study modules. Order from: Vine Street Productions, 4156 Neosho Avenue, Los Angeles CA 90066. Tel. 310-636-0116

Primary Source

Vine Street Pictures